The Prodigal Son - a parable for the holidays.

  • Source: Unknown Publication
  • Date: August 05, 2003
  • Author: Libby Purves

Summer reading, particularly in the unique peace of a seagoing bunk, has a special intensity. Summer re-reading is even better. As I sailed slowly up the Baltic I rediscovered a book I had not touched for thirty years: E. M. Forster?s Howards End. The shock of recognition was aggravated by three decades of hindsight. It struck some violently contemporary notes, and chimed in with another brand new book, to which I will come in a moment.

For it is, like many great Victorian and Edwardian novels (and unlike most of the sexual, romantic, violent or fantastical novels of today), very much about money. In Forster and Henry James, as in their predecessors, Dickens, Thackeray and Trollope, there is a solid, unsentimental recognition that money does matter. Forster?s metaphor is from weaving: money is the warp, the stretched framework across which you put your chosen weft ? culture, luxury, friendship, adventure, altruism, debauchery or, indeed, just more money. His concern is that in the West you cannot weave a 20th-century life, even through human relationships, without the warp of money.

Set against the briskly callous Wilcox family, his heroines, the Schlegel sisters, are anxious to do good, and fret over how best to use the ?gold islets? of private income that lift them above the submerged poor. They long to give the City clerk Leonard Bast, whom they pick up in the Wigmore Hall over an umbrella muddle, a chance to live more fully through the high culture and free thought that he craves. They hold confused debates about this, stopping short of robust reconstructive socialism but admitting that there is little point in ?driblets ... these puny gifts of shillings and blankets? when what is needed is a big enough islet of gold for Leonard Bast to stand upright and determine his own life.

Meanwhile, Bast himself runs into ever deeper trouble and ends up dead. It is a marvellous novel because it tries to give relative value to all three corners of life: prosperity, human relationships and art. Like Priestley?s play An Inspector Calls , it has its task made easier by belonging to a pre-welfare age, when it really was simple to draw a straight line from the carelessness of the wealthy to the shipwreck of the poor. Today the lines are blurred: exploitation of the world?s weakest is tidily institutionalised, and the plight of our own poor is blurred by welfare dependency. The ?abyss? of Victorian and Edwardian fiction is still there, but it is mercifully harder to tumble into, even when the ministry fouls up your tax credit payments.

Notions of art and its function have changed, too, with broadcasting, cheap books and street-upwards cultural movements. I do not think that many modern Leonard Basts feel the need to take their threadbare umbrellas and shilling tickets to the Wigmore Hall to hear Beethoven, not with Classic FM and ?1.50 bargain CDs. Nor would the average call-centre clerk of today feel humbly honoured to be given tea and literary chat by a pair of arty spinsters.

But the great questions Forster raises do not go away, any more than his cry of ?only connect!? is irrelevant to our fearful, selfish, fragmented, hurried society. The question of money, how it flows and what it means to the happiness and spiritual development of human beings, is still there. This is a good time of year to consider it, since ? like Christmas ? August is a time when we combine noisy lip-service to simple happiness with a maximum level of crazy spending and debt. We go on about children?s fun, family time and the aesthetics of travel, while trying not to recognise how much hard cash has to flow through our hands in order to affirm these soft human values.

That simple-looking child on the beach at Southwold is costing a fortune, from her unbleached cotton Christopher Robin hat and retro tin spade to her bunk-bed in the exorbitant holiday cottage; that bare-chested back-to-nature teenager in the Cornish surf is racking up debts to double his student grant; those carefree figures hiking the moors or spinning for mackerel from a picturesque battered dinghy know perfectly well that their peasant-like summer fortnight is paid for by plastic debt which will rear up like a striking cobra when they get home. And we know, too, that there are modern Basts who don?t get holidays; which is why the excellent Family Holiday Association charity chooses this month to hit us with appeals.

This is not mere gloom-mongering. It is by way of a preface to the second book I picked up: an early copy of a refreshingly eccentric tome by the Scottish financial journalist, Trollope expert and occasional novelist, Antonia Swinson. It is called Root of all Evil? and purports to be a Christian analysis of how money influences every aspect of our lives, how it has got disgracefully out of hand, and should be whipped back into line with our real ethical and personal values. Mr Blair should immediately recruit Swinson to his new faith-and-policy review group, if he has the bottle.

Unbelievers may be infuriated by her casual references to God, but should persevere: Swinson is no sanctimonious God-botherer or parlour leftie. She is a hard-nosed, canny financial specialist with a hearty contempt for the sector?s cant, dishonesty, incompetence and what she dubs the ?preventative incantation? that makes too many of her colleagues join in with fund managers and finance houses to bleat about the inevitable long-term wonderfulness of stock market investments.

In the wake of the dot-com bubble, Equitable Life, pensions, Enron and the rest, her own journalistic conscience is reasonably clear: as far back as 1997 the dour Swinson wrote of ?a gut feel that something is going to wipe the smug grins off those pasty-faced baby-boomers ... what an interesting sight it will be when these people, with their identical backgrounds, education and lifestyle, finally stampede for the exit at the same time. The truth is that neither the bulls nor the bears really know what is going to happen, or when.? And she quotes the financial writer, Charles Mackay, in 1852, saying: ?Men go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.?

Swinson?s solutions are as bracing and uncomfortable as her analysis. She dislikes consumer debt and those who push it, and scorns the weasel way we have of referring to debt ? a bad word ? as ?credit?, a good word. She likes savings and ?Lets? ? the American-style local groups gathering momentum in communities all over Britain that buy and sell goods and services between themselves without using cash. She likes micro-credit schemes for small entrepreneurs and always prefers the local, the accountable, the personal. On the grand scale, she is a brave and (in many quarters) deeply unpopular proponent of land value tax (LVT), and there is real fire and fury in her chapter 5 about how the idea of taxing land ownership and giving the value of the land back to the people has been violently stifled for a century in Britain by landed interests, private and corporate and incurably secretive.

She reminds us that Winston Churchill himself tried and failed to propose LVT. Reading her account ? too complex to summarise quickly ? I found myself short of breath and thought of Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest, told by Miss Prism: ?The chapter on the Fall of the Rupee you may omit. It is somewhat too sensational.?

Swinson is probably not right about everything. A hail of well-reasoned contumely will fall on her from churches, banks, classical economists and the stock market trades. But there is a surprising amount of fun and hope to be got from thinking differently, especially in this summer season when we devote borrowed thousands to kidding ourselves that we love the simple life. Near the end, Swinson gives us the parable of the prodigal son, adorning it with the journalist?s cry of ?Follow the money!? Who, she asks, was profiting all this time from the young man?s folly? In whose interest was it to keep him prodigal?

The list is long: his hangers-on, all the retailers of riotous living amenities, the government enjoying his ?increased economic activity? and relying on him to spend his way out of their consumer recession. Later on come the moneylenders who bail him out at high interest, and of course the owner of the swine that he ends up feeding, as cheap labour on starvation wages. The poor daft boy is not his own master at all, not for a minute. And, with the latest household debt figures hitting ?878 billion, neither are most of us.

Monday, 27 March, 2017
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